I will give a brief overview of the intended policy approach reflected in the general scheme that has been circulated to the committee. I thank the committee for the opportunity to present the proposed public sector standards legislation.
As set out in the Minister's letter of 18 June 2015 to the Chairman of the committee, the Statement of Government Priorities 2014-2016 included a commitment to publish legislation to consolidate local and national ethics requirements and to give effect to the recommendations of the tribunals. At its meeting of 16 June 2015, the Government approved the drafting of the Public Sector Standards Bill on the basis of the general scheme of the Bill that has been circulated. In addition to the general scheme, a policy assessment of the proposals has been published on the Department's website and has been provided to the committee. It is intended to assist the committee in its scrutiny of the proposals contained in the general scheme. It is also intended to act as a basis, under the open government partnership for public consultation with civil society and other bodies, in looking at the proposed reform legislative model for disclosure of interest and the management of actual and perceived conflicts of interest for public officials.
The context of the Bill is that an effective framework of standards for public officials is integral to the quality and efficacy of public governance. Addressing corruption risks through an appropriate disclosure of interests regime and the regulation of conflicts of interests are critical to maintaining trust in, and the reputation of, public institutions. International and national research highlights the important linkages between the quality of public institutions and long-term economic and social sustainability. The committee will recall that the Mahon tribunal highlighted in 2012 the need for a far-reaching overhaul of Ireland's ethics regime.
Against this backdrop and in the context of the Department's review of the existing legislative framework, a number of areas for improvement were identified in the course of our work. For example, the existing statutory provisions for ethics were developed piecemeal, over time, and set out different requirements at national and local level. The current legislation does not set out a clear set of statutory principles to help underpin ethical conduct of public officials, such as the Nolan principles in the United Kingdom. There is also a need for a more efficient and dynamic system of compliance and compliance monitoring. Another issue is that responsibilities for the provision of advice and for the development of guidelines and codes of conduct are distributed among a number of different bodies, which can make it difficult across the public sector to ensure that a consistent approach applies. Moreover, a strengthening in the level of knowledge and understanding of specific obligations among public officials would be desirable. There is clear scope to enhance and strengthen the institutional framework for the overview and oversight of ethics requirements.
In light of these factors and the other issues identified in the Minister's policy assessment, the objectives of the Bill in overall terms are as follows: to modernise, simplify and streamline the current legislative framework; to put in place a consistent, coherent and proportionate framework for all public officials at both local and national level which is appropriately calibrated to conflict of interest and corruption risks; to introduce a model that corresponds to international best practice that is appropriately balanced with other important public policy objectives, including safeguarding the constitutional right to privacy that citizens enjoy and encouraging participation in public life; to ensure that the institutional framework for oversight, investigation and enforcement of contraventions of the legislation is robust and effective; to respond to the Mahon tribunal recommendations and thereby strengthen public trust in public administration.
In common with other significant legislative initiatives brought forward by the Minister, such as the Regulation of Lobbying Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the Protected Disclosures Act, there are some very substantial reforms included in these proposals. It is proposed to replace the Standards in Public Office Commission with a single public sector standards commissioner. In that regard, the commissioner will have increased powers and, supported by a deputy commissioner who will be independent in terms of their investigative functions, will implement what is intended to be a more streamlined and improved complaints and investigations procedure.
The commissioner will have stronger powers of sanction and enforcement when contraventions take place, as well as a broader role in the provision of advice and guidance. As I have already stated, the proposed legislation sets out a series of overarching integrity principles, which will apply to all public officials, and provides a framework for the revision, updating and improvement of codes of standard and behaviour for different categories of public official.
The proposed legislation strengthens the legal obligation for public officials to disclose, as a matter of routine, actual and potential conflicts of interest that arise in the context of the performance of their duties. It also intends to establish a more effective, streamlined and efficient process for the submission of periodic statements of interests. Importantly, it significantly extends the personal and material scope of disclosures for public officials in line with the Mahon recommendations, with uniform definitions applying at national and local level. It adopts a graduated approach to disclosures, whereby declarations of interests of elected public officials and senior administrators are made to the commissioner and, in some instances, published, while private declarable interests such as liabilities over certain thresholds will be disclosed on a confidential basis and will not be published.
The proposed legislation seeks to impose statutory prohibitions on the use of insider information and on the seeking or acceptance by public officials of benefits to further their private interests. It also proposes the establishment of a new statutory board to address potential conflicts of interest for public officials who take up roles in the private sector - the so-called revolving door issue - by merging the outside appointments boards, OABs, for the civil service and local authority systems.
I thank the committee for the
opportunity to outline some of the main aspects of the proposed new legislative framework for public sector standards. My colleagues and I are, of course, happy to answer any questions members may have about the proposed approach. We have circulated copies of a presentation which provides more detail on some key aspects of the proposed approach.